AUSTIN, Texas — Our Lyft driver played Pandora’s Bobby Darin station in his truck, keeping the kids entertained as we wove our way to a wine bar. Fortified by happy hour, our party of four headed for the hotel as the afternoon waned. I couldn’t wait to get back — not for the Hill Country views or salt-water pool that would look at home in “Architectural Digest.” I wanted to search listings for real estate on my phone. One day into a trip to Austin, Texas, I was plotting my family’s next move.
I’m not the only one. US News & World Report named Austin the best place to live in 2018 for the second year in a row, and the word is out: About 100 transplants arrive here daily, according to recent city figures. Compared with hipster hubs like Brooklyn and San Francisco, Austin seems affordable — and enjoyable with its evolving restaurant scene, green spaces, and live music including the South by Southwest festival. Those qualities and the weather make it a top travel destination with children, too.
“It’s become such a family town, warm, friendly,” observed Kim Jackson, a mother of five. It’s also become busier, with locals calling the crane the city’s official bird and bemoaning the traffic. For tourists, though, the growth is less complicated, adding sophisticated spots to stay, shop, and dine. At one courtyard lounge, an employee told me they carry Barack Obama’s favorite sake. That detail arrived without pretense, much like the pervading fashion sense of come as you are.
Cocktail in hand, I’d happily toast the fact that Austinites wear Birkenstocks, not because J.Crew started selling them, because they never stopped. That they love Willie Nelson and honored him with a statue. That families begin their mornings with breakfast tacos at food trucks because kids, dogs, and migas are always welcome.
Trendy South Congress Avenue is where old meets new and newer, making Hotel San José an ideal base camp (1316 South Congress Ave., 512-852-2350, sanjosehotel.com). Housed in a former motor court, the minimalist mainstay has a wading pool where children can cool off while their parents drink micheladas. From there, stroll South Congress with breaks at boutiques Cove (for moms, 1318 South Congress Ave., 737-484-0267, coveclothing.com), By George (for moms and dads, 400 South Congress Ave., 512-441-8600, bygeorgeaustin.com) and Big Top Candy Shop (for all ages, 1706 South Congress Ave., 512-462-2220, bigtopcandyshop.com). Finish the tour at June’s All Day (1722 South Congress, 512-416-1722, junesallday.com), whose bistro menu includes a chilled artichoke devoured in two rounds — first the meaty leaves, then the heart with tangy egg salad.
Our trip coincided with peak school season at Disney, and Zilker Park (2100 Barton Springs Road, 512-478-8286, zilkerpark.org) felt a world away with its botanical garden, featuring composting and dinosaur tracks, and its miniature train. From the Zephyr’s station, it’s a short walk to canoe, kayak and paddleboard rentals (2101 Andrew Zilker Road, 512-478-3852, zilkerboats.com) — and row to Lady Bird Lake. Or skip the boats and plunge right into the water at Barton Springs (2201 Barton Springs Road, 512-974-6300, austintexas.gov/department/barton-springs-pool), a natural pool that spans three acres. Carefree in the city, children jump from the diving board while grandmothers exercise and millennials sunbathe in jeans. This is quintessential Austin.
I could easily fly here just to eat, and one morning I had breakfast twice. To start, there were migas tacos — scrambled eggs, tortilla chips — at Veracruz All Natural’s turquoise truck at Radio (4208 Manchaca Road, 512-629-8238, veracruzallnatural.com). We also grabbed pastries and pretzels at Easy Tiger (709 E. 6th St., 512-614-4972, easytigeraustin.com), which doubles as a creekside beer garden. This greased my intestines for the main event: dinner at Launderette (2115 Holly St., 512-382-1599,
launderetteaustin.com), which serves modern Mediterranean cuisine in a converted laundromat. The neighborhood café even makes its kids’ menu hip with hanger steak and broccolini, plus a colorful craft.
LOOK AND LISTEN
I usually reward my children with a treat after an art museum, but Blanton at the University of Texas requires no bribe (200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 512-471-5482, blantonmuseum
.org). That’s thanks to world-class exhibits and Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin,” a building visitors can enter. The next sight was the estimated 1.5 million bats that emerge from the Congress Avenue Bridge to feed at dusk. From that spectacle, I took my daughter to see Patty Griffin perform at Austin City Limits Live (310 Willie Nelson Blvd., 512-225-7999, acl-live.com). It was her first concert, which made one of us very giddy — the town’s swirl of sophisticated and strange still wonderfully weird to me.
Megan Lisagor Stoessell can be reached at Megan.Stoessell@jwu.edu.